I dread Chennai summers, so I'm always on my
guard. Sometime in early March I can't help but notice the feeling of
overwhelming warmth creeping up behind me. Moments
later, my neck is glistening with sweat that has traveled down and inside my shirt – sweat cooling even the warm
breeze that sets in late in the evening.
Mornings are worse. I can't seem to toast a slice
of sourdough bread in the kitchen without exclaiming "it's really
hot!" at least eleven times during the process, while wiping my brow, my
neck, my face, and my back – and not in that order every time. My parents are
sick of hearing me complain and pretend otherwise. The season sucks my energy
in small bouts, resulting in my frequent collapse in the room next to our
kitchen for short breaks. It is 11.30 am before I sit down to eat my first meal
of the day. Half an hour later, we set off to the local market for vegetables
and idle talk, and came back with tomatoes, potatoes,
curry leaves, and secrets.
But despite my constant whining about the heat, the thought of the sun fortifies me – the possibilities of its warmth seem
endless, foremost in food. Instant thoughts include cool cucumbers, juicy red
watermelons, luxurious mangoes (duh!), sweet limes, ICE CREAMS, perhaps iced
coffee to start my mornings with. Amber-hued evening sun compels me to take a
walk around my neighborhood, ending at my
local bakery to savor a hot veggie puff with a
crackly golden crust – the type that provides satisfying ASMR when you scratch
it with a knife – a fluffy bun filled with cloying and copious vanilla cream,
and spongy cakes smeared with thick chocolate icing.
Golden afternoons indicate that the time is ripe
for juicing சாத்துக்குடி (sweet
lime); peels scattered everywhere, its fragrance sending signals. On persimmon
mornings, I'm tempted to cut into a mango and drink its juices, saving the
luminous pulp for later. Coffee after, black and iced. Sometimes laziness
overtakes and I settle for whatever ice cream is in the freezer, for breakfast,
announcing to no one in particular that "it's summer, anything goes!"
– a maxim that I repeat in winter* when I slather my paratha with chunks of
My mother and I have a plan – pickling green
mango in oil and spices, a year's worth of condiment ready in a moment's notice.
Planning in the present to make comforting future meals, which is eerily
similar to preservation itself. Both the act of making a pickle and the pickle
itself are the same thing. Once we mix everything together, we stand and admire
its brilliance: its blood-rich color, and striking hot flavor akin
to the scorching sun. For lunch the next day
there's mor kuzhambu, a cousin to the kadhi, sour soup (sauce? gravy? curry?)
with fried okra floating gently and served hot with rice, but cold with sevai
(a type of rice noodles). The mango pickle isn't ready yet.
In between meals, I allow
myself the luxury of sipping tender coconuts and passing on the வழுக்கை / malai to my father (note:
vazhukkai refers to the white flesh of the tender coconut, but it can also
refer to baldness) and rolling the used coconut along the kitchen floor till it
knocks on the dustbin, disclosing a sharp thud. Soon it is time for a snack of
reserved mangoes, from the morning, contained in its juices which flood the
container it's stored in. There is no discipline involved in eating a mango and
therein lies the utmost pleasure. You don't have to be devout to worship at its
altar – just quiet smacking, a prayer forming on your lips.
Each year I
dread summer when it approaches, but light informs me of the myriad occasions
for eating, pickling, and preserving. The promise of future meals is not just the preservation of summer, but preserving in summer does indicate the
potential of future meals. Light also transforms me. And then I find myself
anticipating warmth in the gloominess of the monsoon, assuring myself and my immediate universe of the
abundance of light and joy that lies ahead.
there is no winter in Chennai, a city that steadily maintains temperatures
above 30°C all year round, although December is cooler. சாத்துக்குடி
(pr. sa-thuh-ku-dee) - sweet lime வழுக்கை
(pr. va-zhuk-kuy) - the white flesh/meat of the tender coconut mor
kuzhambu (pr. more ku-zham-boo) - a curry/sauce made with yogurt (the
‘zh’ sound in Tamil is achieved by doing tongue